The death of Uncle Tom, the good husband and gentle slave who epitomizes the Christian virtues of charity and self-sacrifice, came to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851 in a sudden “vision” that inspired the writing of the book over many months. She was thirty-nine, and known already as a gifted observer. Stowe had recently witnessed the death of her youngest child, “the most beautiful and most loved” of seven children, as she described him; there were “circumstances,” she said, “about his death of such peculiar bitterness” that for the first time she was made to understand the feelings of a slave mother from whom a child at any moment could be snatched away. She believed that her private tragedy was the incitement for the book; but it had a longer and public background.
Stowe came from a family that embodied the New England conscience at its unappeasable height. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was the Congregationalist minister in Litchfield, Connecticut (William Lloyd Garrison was a member of the congregation). In 1832, he had been offered a position as head of Lane Theological Seminary; the family went with him to Cincinnati, and it was there that Harriet Beecher heard firsthand stories about slavery in Kentucky, and saw its uneasy aftermath in the lives of freed men and women. As a member of the Semi-Colon Club, she came to know distinguished men of abolitionist views, including Salmon Chase, the future chief justice, and the professor and widower with whom she fell in love, Calvin Stowe.
In writing a book against slavery, then, she was confirming the traditions in which she had been raised; but no one predicted her success. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was serialized in an antislavery magazine, the National Era, between June 8, 1851, and April 1, 1852. A first edition sold five thousand copies in four days. Within a year, more than 300,000 copies had been sold in the United States, and more than two million in the world. The national debate on the spread of slavery in the 1850s often seemed to depend on an argument about whether Stowe’s portrayals were true to life.
“We hate,” wrote Keats, “poetry that has a palpable design upon us”; but Stowe was born into the age of Dickens and Browning, when high imagination and a moral message were felt to be compatible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is in one sense a work of public speech; and it suffers from the defects of pace and economy of an author whose dramatic sense was always weak; yet she managed here to produce a sensational plot without the help of a single surprise. The slave trader, Haley, “a man of leather” who appears on the opening page of the book, and the cruel plantation owner Simon Legree are singular triumphs of melodramatic allure: characters separable from their context, who seem to embody situations in themselves. The lukewarm Kentucky slave owner Arthur Shelby, who trades Uncle Tom to Haley in order to keep his other property at the beginning of the novel, is a smaller but characteristic success of portraiture whose vividness prefigures the incidents that follow. The reality of Shelby and Haley, you might say, dirties the air sufficiently to allow for our eventual belief in Little Eva, the daughter of the slave-owning St. Clare family of New Orleans, saintly, sickly, and doomed. Eva belongs so fully to Victorian stereotype that all her gestures appear to be written in capitals; and the same is true of her black counterpart, the slave child Topsy, whose ungovernable impishness can only be healed by love and trust.
But this is to look ahead in a plot that Americans no longer know as they once did from stage and screen and pantomime. The bargain that gives Uncle Tom to Haley has also included a five-year-old slave child, Harry, and thereby threatened to separate Harry from his adoring mother, Eliza. Meanwhile, Eliza’s husband, George Harris, has made a break for freedom by the Underground Railroad. Before Haley can come to claim Harry, Eliza flees with him; and they are helped to freedom first by an ordinary liberty-loving citizen, Mr. Symmes, who admires her pluck and courage; then by the kindly Mrs. Bird and her husband, Senator Bird; and finally by the members of a Quaker community. So Eliza and Harry pass over to freedom and a reunion with George Harris in Canada.
The rebels from slavery, however, have a subordinate place in a story whose main emphasis always falls on the tragedy of Uncle Tom. From Haley, Tom is first sold into the keeping of Augustine St. Clare, the owner of a picturesque New Orleans estate. There he soon becomes the constant companion of the gentle child of the St. Clare family, Eva, who, like him, has fully absorbed and come to preach the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount. This idyllic interval closes with the death of Eva, followed by the sudden death of Augustine—at which, given over to the mercies of Augustine’s uncaring wife, Tom is sold to a cruel master, Simon Legree. Having taken note of Tom’s intelligence, Legree means to have him serve as an overseer; but he reckons that Tom needs hardening, and so he is sent to work in the cotton fields with the other slaves. Even when offered a chance to escape with a female slave, Cassy, Tom insists on his obligation to stay and suffer. Legree, without cause, blames Tom for the flight of Cassy and another slave; and when Tom will not confess, Legree orders him beaten and tormented continually. After his death, the story closes a second time with the success of Cassy’s escape and her discovery that Eliza Harris is her long-lost child.
To readers of Victorian fiction and especially of three novels by Dickens—Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and The Old Curiosity Shop—Stowe’s borrowings from a familiar stock of sentimental and grotesque characters were part of a well-understood vocabulary. The danger, for Stowe, lay in the temptation to portray the contest over slavery wholly as a battle between men of good will and men of malignant selfishness, the Brownlows and Cheerybles of this world and the Gradgrinds and M’Choakumchilds. The Dickens touch is everywhere in the book: Mrs. Bird, for example, of whom we have an early glimpse “superintending the arrangements of the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remarks to a number of frolicsome juveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief that have astonished mothers ever since the flood.”
The same tones are laid on thickly in the festive scene of dinner at the Quaker settlement where Eliza Harris takes shelter with Harry: “Even the knives and forks had a social clatter as they went on to the table; and the chicken and ham had a cheerful and joyous fizzle in the pan, as if they rather enjoyed being cooked than otherwise.” Yet for all its conventionality of form and imitativeness of texture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fever-dream of injustice that draws the reader irresistibly on.
Edmund Wilson, in his essay on Stowe in Patriotic Gore, captured this quality better than any other commentator:
Out of a background of undistinguished narrative, inelegantly and carelessly written, the characters leap into being with a vitality that is all the more striking for the ineptitude of the prose that presents them…. The Shelbys and George Harris and Eliza and Aunt Chloe and Uncle Tom project themselves out of the void. They come before us arguing and struggling, like real people who cannot be quiet.
The spirit of the divided country, Wilson thought, had been given by Stowe “the form of a flock of lamenting and ranting, prattling and preaching characters, in a drama that demands to be played to the end.” Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those works of fiction, like The Pilgrim’s Progress, whose claim on the reader intensifies rather than slackens from a foreknowledge of its ending.
At the heart of the novel are two scenes of slave trading, and two deaths. When the seller in the opening scene, Mr. Shelby, unloads Eliza and Harry along with Uncle Tom, the buyer Haley says of himself: “I’ve got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep,—just a little, you know, to swear by, as ‘t were.” In that one stroke he comes alive. By contrast, the good people in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, those who give the protest speeches, are always in peril of sinking under the weight of their own worthiness. When George Harris cries out, “My master! and who made him my master?”—it is understood that he will have more to say in the same vein, not because his wife needs to hear it, but because Stowe wants the reader to listen.
The second scene of trading occurs at an auction, and it has the authority and immediacy of a news report. This is a panorama, where the bargain of Haley and Shelby had been a domestic tableau. But the private and public auctions are arranged alike to sharpen our horror at the deaths around which the book is plotted. These latter scenes belong to characters who are physically opposite but morally identical: Uncle Tom and Little Eva. The Underground Railroad may save a few of the fortunate, like George and Eliza Harris; but Tom and Eva are proofs of the rule that slavery kills. In the moral scheme of Stowe’s novel—though not in any strict relation of cause and effect—these two must die so that George and Eliza can live. Both sacrificial heroes are Christlike; and they are felt to be so by the other characters. A white female could not safely be taken to embody a goodness like Eva’s except in her childish state: a full-grown Eva, after all, would have derived her guilt-ridden privilege from the profits of slavery, or else would have devoted an active life to opposing the evils of slavery, and neither position is suited to the patient suffering of a Christian saint. Similarly, a proud and energetic Tom could not have turned the other cheek forever.
These two between them exemplify the mystery of atonement. They exist in order to forgive; and if one asks what must be forgiven, the answer is the crime of slavery itself. Yet strong as the resemblance is, Tom and Eva differ in the manner of their deaths. Eva passes away decorously, from a wasting sickness. Tom, on Simon Legree’s Louisiana plantation, is tortured to death—punished beyond the reach of a reason for the sake of inflicting pain—after he has refused to flog a fellow slave and refused to assist in the hunt for two escaped slaves. (He also declines an opportunity to murder his vicious master, saying, “Good never comes of wickedness. I’d sooner chop my right hand off.”) As Stowe presents it, torture is a physical intensification of slavery, as slavery itself is a drawing out, over time, of the domination made manifest in torture. Before he dies, Tom asks Legree to spare his body in order to save his own soul from eternal damnation: “My troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end.” Legree, who hates Tom with “the native antipathy of bad to good,” for a moment hesitates but he does not relent, and by the time the enlightened young master George Shelby, the son of Arthur, arrives on the scene to buy him back, Tom has fixed his gaze on a glory beyond this world: “The Lord’s bought me, and is going to take me home,—and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kintuck.”
Stowe’s treatment of the death of Tom is restrained: we are spared the worst of his sufferings. By contrast, Little Eva takes five purposeful and meditative chapters to die of consumption. This spectacular experiment in the domestication of death is borrowed from Dickens’s handling of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, but it is moralized by Stowe far more assiduously. The allegory is neatly fixed around household realities. By her perfection of charity, Eva is meant to embody a virtue that her father is too feeble to practice and her mother too selfish to care for. Yet the series of scenes in which the angelic child instructs and consoles her admirers, and gives locks of her hair alike to the slaves and masters of the house, and draws the tears from Topsy that prove the incorrigible black child worthy at last of redemption—all this is carried off with so calculated a view for effect that the author’s aim is almost nullified. The piled-up solemnity shivers into bathos when Eva (having thirty pages earlier announced, “I’m going there…there…to the spirits bright,” and again, “I’m going, before long“) admonishes the slaves to read their Bibles, and then realizes with a shudder: “Oh, dear! You can’t read!” She pulls herself up with a “Never mind” and declares they will be saved anyway because she has prayed for their souls.
The earlier scenes on the estate of Augustine St. Clare are animated by a different kind of energy. Here, uniquely, we begin to see the slaves as individuals. Augustine has allowed his servants to run riot, and the arrogant self-will of his unsentimental brother Alfred, also a plantation owner, turns out to be a smaller calamity for the slaves than Augustine’s permissiveness. This points the moral of the book more finely than any comment could have done. All slaves are at the mercy of their masters. They are touched equally by the virtues and the defects of those who control them; and that is precisely the thing that is most wrong about slavery. The good master cannot prepare you for a life unsheltered by his benevolence, since, at any moment, the system itself exposes you to the possibility of being sold out from under him. On the St. Clare estate, the viciousness of the system shows plainly in the manners of the house slave Adolph, who has copied from Augustine a nonchalance that has no foundation in the conditions of his life. When Augustine dies, he will leave this faithful disciple utterly unequipped.
Augustine St. Clare is the most interesting of Stowe’s creations: a man with a touch of Byronic pride, self-mockery, and indolence, who has lost his gamble at love and felt himself crushed by fate and marriage. He never wished for his slave inheritance, but cannot imagine getting clear of it. At the same time, St. Clare is an exacting critic of his New England cousin Ophelia, and a jaundiced observer of the part played by moral luck in the making of what society calls a good man. “What poor, mean trash,” he says, “this whole business of human virtue is!” In the South, slaves and masters are unlucky enough to be born into a system the North has got mostly free of; but that does not mean that the men and women of the North are finer human specimens. The difference is “a mere matter, for the most part,” Augustine remarks, “of latitude and longitude”; and he points to Ophelia’s father, who, though he happened to settle in Vermont, seems “a duplicate of my father. I can see it leaking out in fifty different ways,—just that same strong, overbearing, dominant spirit.”
There are many democrats, he adds, who are only such because they have “fallen on democratic times”; at heart, they may be aristocrats, “as much as my father, who ruled over five or six hundred slaves.” His antislavery cousin Ophelia (in some part a self-portrait of Stowe) has no answer to these sallies. From the manners of her Southern relatives, of all people, she will finally learn to overcome her physical revulsion from touching a Negro—a feeling as unworthy as the haughtiness she deplores in the institutions of mastery.
Stowe’s complex treatment of conscience is a most admirable and unexpected feature of the book. The chapter entitled “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions,” whose theme is the impossibility of earning a good conscience by confining oneself to clean experiences, can be read as a pamphlet in itself. For Stowe saw as clearly as any of her contemporaries that freedom without education would be a cheap and destructible gift for emancipated slaves. She did not know the method for achieving a durable improvement in a people not yet prepared for the fruits of emancipation; and she lets her characters share her anxiety. The test for education in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Topsy, who recognizes her own sinfulness (much as the slave trader Haley does) but does not expect it to stop. “You find virgin soil there, Cousin,” says Augustine to Ophelia; “put in your own ideas,—you won’t find many to pull up.” The real education of Topsy comes as a transformation of feeling; and it is brought about by the death of Eva.
Simon Legree belongs with St. Clare among the more humanly realized of the novel’s characters. He is not a devil but a coarse and common man, possessed by the sadism that comes from the lust for power when it has no worldly force to restrain it. Legree is what many men would be if their mastery were unlimited and if they cherished no interest besides mastery. What can moral judgment do with such a person? The scene in which Tom begs him to repent has hidden under it a broader theological issue. Stowe herself, and the Beecher and Stowe clans in their sermons and letters, had wondered whether in the afterlife a man like Legree was to be punished everlastingly. Close to that question lay a practical concern about worldly conduct. Could such a man be reformed without the fear of eternal punishment? For one of the differences between Uncle Tom and Simon Legree is that Tom is a believer. Without the urgent reality of religious faith supported by the threat of damnation, would there not be more Simon Legrees?
Stowe never seems to have satisfied herself on this point, and her palpable doubts place an extra burden on sheer sentiment to resolve questions about will and character that lie beyond the reach of sentiment. Her largest legacy from Dickens, for better and for worse, was a trust in the power of the change of heart. We see this in her rendering of the slave catcher Tom Loker, whose life is saved by the Underground Railroad and whose gratitude leads him to become a trapper of animals. We see a similar miracle in Topsy. We find it again in the cruel assistants of Legree, who are converted by Tom’s death to follow his example and reform their lives. The change of heart, for Stowe, was something between a plot device and an emanation of supernatural grace.
The editors of The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins, suggest that Stowe also believed in a collective version of the change of heart. “Men might embrace anti-slavery politics,” they summarize the novel as saying, “because their wives expected better of them.” This seems true of two marriages in the book, the Shelbys’ and Senator and Mrs. Bird’s, where the wife is sentimentally and morally elevated above her husband. Yet the St. Clare marriage goes against the formula. Whereas Augustine is a good man, destroyed by failure in love and by self-pity, his wife Marie is a lower type in every respect: a female tyrant whose corruption is made worse by a refined ability to see herself as a victim. Still, it is true that Stowe in general presents a family and a home as sufficient to redeem all the sufferings with which society afflicts the helpless. These possessions become the sentimental proof of the claim that slaves are human: they, too, want families, and they can make happy families.
The completeness of Stowe’s conformity to the domestic ideology of her time stands in a curious tension with her political dissidence. One can see the difference plainly if one compares Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a novel that came out the following year, Melville’s Pierre. This story about incestuous desire and thwarted love shows the dutiful affections of a man to a family as at once inescapable and poisonous. “Melville,” Ann Douglas has accurately commented, “makes the sentimental domestic romance into a cage in which he deliberately confines his main character—and himself—both to define the limits of the form and to test the possibility of breaking out and destroying it.”
By contrast, Stowe turns the tragedy of slavery into the drama of the breakup of a family; and she resolves the moral problem by the device of the double reunion of a husband and wife (George and Eliza Harris) and a mother and child (Cassy and her daughter Eliza). Thus, black and white people are unified most of all by their desire to become members of a family. The strength of Stowe is that she recognizes the precariousness of this device. Her characters wonder incessantly whether the influence of sentiment on character and opinion can do much to resolve a crisis as heated as the sectional contest of the 1850s. They are not sure that feelings are enough; and Stowe herself was not sure.
Her portrait of a Christlike slave as a hero of freedom was easily misunderstood. The proposition “If all slaves were like Uncle Tom, the problem would be solved” was not a formula she would have wished to be understood as propounding. Nor was she suggesting that all slaves should try to be like Tom simply in order to make themselves admirable. Why then did she create so exceptional a hero? To offer the extreme case as exemplary is a common tactic in moral arguments; but when, as here, the argument is aimed at public persuasion, one may be uncertain what is intended by the choice.
Stowe deplored all violence, and argued against slavery as a system of hidden and endless violence. Does that mean that a slave has a right to rebel? The character of Uncle Tom subtly evades the question. Again, are all protesters also obliged to follow the code of self-sacrifice? “We are curious to know,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison, “whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage and peril, as well as for the black man.” This raises a fair question, since, presumably, an abolitionist in 1852 has a duty to resist the law of the slave hunter. But to the extent that Garrison meant to suggest a larger right of resistance, he was looking beyond the range of choices offered in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most of all, Stowe succeeds in demonstrating that the highest moral virtues—patience and courage under duress, and charity in answer to insult—can be found among blacks as among whites. If this is so, she would have wanted her readers to conclude, not only is slavery wrong but every act that perpetuates slavery is a crucifixion.
Pro-slavery reviewers chiefly resented her portrayal of a system in which slaves had no rights at all, and in which that invariable fact necessarily led to brutal consequences. There were state laws, they said (in Virginia, for example) against cruelty; and it was not unknown for a slave to be pardoned for attacking a master, if evidence of provocation was brought before a court. These sophistical apologies Stowe was magnificently prepared to rebut, as she proved in the book she published the following year: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work.
The Key displays the documentary sources of Stowe’s belief that slave owners and catchers know that they are doing wrong; and it offers prototypes for most of her main characters and incidents (including Eliza and Harry escaping from their new master by crossing the ice floes on the Ohio River). Against every political and theological justification of the slave trade, Stowe cites the closing statement by John Hale in the Rescue Trials of October 1852. “Why, gentlemen,” said Hale of a slave hunter like Tom Loker, “he sells agony! Torture is his stock-in-trade!… He hawks, peddles, retails, groans and tears about the streets of Norfolk.”
Stowe’s wit—a quality of the eye as well as the mind—comes out in the notations with which she explains her choice of prototypes. Frederick Douglass, for example, was in some measure the pattern for George Harris:
Douglass was the son of a white man. He was a plantation slave in a proud old family; his situation, probably, may be considered as an average one; that is to say, he led a life of dirt, degradation, discomfort of various kinds, made tolerable as a matter of daily habit, and considered as enviable in comparison with the lot of those who suffer worse abuse.
This is Stowe’s natural expository voice: sober, acute, tenacious, and precise. And the Key throughout exhibits the workings of a keen sociological intelligence. Had she not made her bid as a writer of fiction, we might today consider Harriet Beecher Stowe an American counterpart of Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau; for the Key shows her to be, like the authors of Democracy in America and Society in America, both an imaginative and a scrupulous interpreter of documents. So when she claims, “this is not novel-writing—this is fact,” she supports the novel’s description of a slave auction with the advertisements she found in South Carolina newspapers in November and December 1852. Human property here was “tumbled promiscuously out before the public with horses, mules, second-hand buggies, cotton-seed, bedsteads, &c., &c.” With an impartiality that recalls the best of the dialogue between Augustine and Ophelia, Stowe speaks in her own voice about the stake in slavery held by the North as well as the South. If a clergyman of New England, she says, elects to preach an honest sermon against slavery, “he will probably then find that the roots of the poison-tree have run under the very hearth-stone of New England families.”
The editorial apparatus of The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin makes very sparing use of the Key. The notes, instead, follow the action of the novel with marginal comments that are elaborate, often entertaining, and occasionally prodding without much aim: when the narrator mentions an after-dinner cigar, it is not clear who needs to be told that “once again, Mr. Shelby is putting something in his mouth.” The copious illustrations range from drawings by George Cruikshank and his followers to the color lithographs, poster art, and comic-book retellings that have followed the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin over 155 years. Much of the introduction by Gates and Robbins, and some of their more expansive notes, offer, in effect, a rebuttal of James Baldwin’s strictures against Uncle Tom’s Cabin as propaganda. Baldwin published his youthful essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in the late 1940s; and he objected there to a certain flatness of realization which he discerned alike in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. He was striking a purist stance (we hate novels that have a palpable design on us) in defiance of prescriptive realism and agitational writing: great fiction should exemplify and impart, said Baldwin, “a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted.”
By that standard, Richard Wright—the creator of the anti–Uncle Tom of Native Son, the murderer Bigger Thomas—had offended as deeply as Stowe in confusing the genuine work of imagination with a “devotion to humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause.” And yet, looking back on Baldwin’s career, Gates and Robbins notice that he never overcame the temptation of protest he had once denounced; in his most eloquent work as an essayist, he showed a devotion to humanity reminiscent of Stowe’s. There is a larger point which the editors allow to emerge so distinctly that it need only be repeated once. In the mid-twentieth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a more influential book than black novelists, essay writers, and social critics could easily acknowledge. What should we make of that? If Stowe’s abolitionist imaginings were a help in a later struggle for justice that had so different a temper and morale, one may well conclude: so much the better for both.
October 25, 2007